The United States observed its 1976 Bicentennial with a remarkable—some say endless—variety of celebrations, most organized by local communities. But 100 years ago, the nation's Centennial festivities included, in addition to local pageants, a major national attraction—the United States International Exhibition—at which more than 40 foreign countries participated. Among them were three Middle Eastern states—Tunisia, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire—all places which, to most Americans of 1876, were colorful, exotic and very far away.
When the Ottoman Empire's diplomatic representative in Washington, Guy d'Aristarchi, accepted the State Department's invitation to join in the Exhibition, he conveyed the Sublime Porte's interest in furnishing "a new proof of its cordial feelings towards the United States." But in addition to this spirit of friendship, the foreign exhibitors, including the Arabs and the Turks, were also, and understandably, interested in promoting their own advancement. As the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Riaz Pasha, said, such international exhibitions were, "eminently useful for the development of the arts and industry and of the commercial interests of every people."
The Tunisian Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Khair al-Din Pasha, was even more enthusiastic about world exhibitions. An astute observer of the Western scene and a vigorous reformer of Tunisian institutions, Khair al-Din had written that at international fairs "the backward emulate the advanced." Like Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia had contributed to earlier exhibitions, especially the Paris Exposition of 1867 and the Vienna Exposition of 1873.
An unstated Corollary of Khair al-Din's views was that Middle Eastern governments, some of which were beginning to move toward economic, social and political "modernization," could use the exhibitions to lessen foreign domination of their economies. By organizing displays which demonstrated they were skillful and industrious people with rich heritages, the Arabs and Turks sought! Western acceptance and respect as equals.
The Centennial Exhibition was held in Philadelphia's Fairmont Park from May 10–November 10, 1876. Although planning had begun in the early 1870's, it was not until June 1874, that the United States formally extended invitations to foreign states. Tunisia and the Ottoman Empire accepted in February 1875, and Egypt in April. Persia—now Iran—which initially accepted, later declined and sent no display to Philadelphia.
Foreign governments were requested to appoint commissions to act as liaisons with organizers in the United States and supervise the assembling of their own national exhibits. The Egyptian Government named Prince Muhammad Tewfiq, the son of Khedive Isma'il, president of its 11-member commission. Its most active member, however, was Henri Brugsch, a prominent Egyptologist who had formed the Egyptian display at Vienna, and only Brugsch, his brother Emile and three minor officials traveled to Philadelphia. Khedive Isma'il appropriated $60,000 for the creation of the Egyptian exhibit, while reserving another $5,000 for the expenses of the commissioners: $300 for travel and an $8 per diem allowance while they were in the United States.
By late summer, 1875, Brugsch and his associates had collected 140 cases of material for the exhibit, most provided by the Egyptian Government. Only 10 private contributors supplemented items supplied by the Ministries of War and Public Instruction and the National Museum. Goods shipped from Alexandria began arriving in Philadelphia on January 18, and by the opening of the Exhibition totaled 274 packages weighing 68,640 pounds.
The much smaller Tunisian commission consisted only of Sidi Hussain, who was Minister of Instruction and Public Works and had visited the United States in 1867, and George Heap, the American consul in Tunis. At first Heap thought that the Tunisians would not create a very original exhibit, sending "the same articles to Philadelphia as were sent to the Vienna Exhibition." The enthusiasm of his co-commissioner, Sidi Hussain, and of the Prime Minister soon changed the consul's view, however, and Heap even agreed to act as the Tunisian representative in Philadelphia. The Tunisian exhibit, comprising 58 packages and weighing 14,440 pounds, did not leave North Africa until February 8, 1876, reaching Fairmount Park on May 4, less than a week before the fair opened.
The Ottoman commission encountered serious difficulties in organizing its display, most of them stemming from the Empire's size and its inadequate transportation and communications system. Collecting and preparing inventories of goods from the Balkans, Anatolia and the Arab provinces in Istanbul was a time-consuming process. In August 1875, d'Aristarchi, the Ottoman diplomat, writing from Newport, Rhode Island, where he was vacationing, promised the Centennial Commission he would try to hurry things up, although he doubted, under the circumstances, that he could. He couldn't, and the Ottoman display was not ready on May 10, the opening day. The Ottoman Empire's 121 packages weighing 25,004 pounds continued to trickle into the fairgrounds until the end of the month.
The contributions of Tunisia, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, along with other foreign and domestic displays were housed in the Exhibition's main building, which sprawled over 20 acres. Although Egypt had the most space, more than 5,000 square feet, the Ottomans boasted many more elements in their display, with over 1,600 individuals or firms taking advantage of the fair to publicize their wares. Indeed, only the British Empire and the United States sent more exhibitors.
Centennial Commission officials separated the foreign participants into geographical groups whose exhibits were then clustered in specific parts of the hall. This practice produced a particularly pleasant side effect. The smell of attar of rose, incense, scented woods, spices, coffee and Turkish tobacco all mingled around the Middle Eastern displays, providing visitors with "delicious whiffs of ... the sweet, stimulating perfume which must be the breath of the Orient ... a faint, intoxicating aroma."
The facade of the Egyptian section imitated that of an ancient temple replete with lotus-leaf capitals, while the exterior of the Tunisian exhibit copied a Moorish villa. Both Egypt and Tunisia capitalized on their ancient heritages by showing antiquities from the Pharaonic and Carthaginian eras—periods of Mediterranean history more familiar to many of their American visitors than the 19th century. Egypt chose as its motto for the Exhibition "The Oldest People to the Youngest," and in keeping with the theme displayed statuary dating from 1000 B.C. and photographs of ancient sites. From the ruins of Carthage the Tunisian Government sent a life-sized mosaic of a lion attacking a horse, which one commentator described as the best artwork of the entire Exhibition. It was by far the most popular feature in the Tunisian section and attracted continuous crowds, some of whom tried to loosen tiles for souvenirs. Eventually Heap had to cover the mosaic with a wire screen to discourage vandalism.
All three Middle Eastern exhibitors presented displays of textiles, elaborate metalwork, inlaid furnishings, pottery, exquisite jewelry and crafts typical of the region. A carefully arranged portion of the Egyptian exhibit presented an extensive collection of cotton samples packed in small rolls, each marked with its place of origin, grower and sale price. A large library of books used by the Ministry of Public Instruction and the Polytechnic School, including volumes for the blind, illustrated the strides being made in education in the Nile Valley.
When the Tunisian display opened to the public in late May, it offered visitors an insight into everyday life at several levels. A small alcove within the Tunisian area contained furnishings typical of an upper-class Tunisian drawing room, including a solid silver coffee service and 10 small china cups. Outside were pitched two Bedouin tents. A large collection of ornate firearms constituted perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Tunisian display. One tourist noted that "it would be no easy matter to find an American shop in which such highly and elaborately finished guns could be made." As was intended, the collection conveyed to visitors a sense of sophistication they would not previously have attributed to the small state.
Until early July, hanging Oriental carpets screened the area reserved for the Ottoman Empire from public view. Behind them laborers continued to prepare the display. Some early visitors grumbled at not being able to see everything in the main building, but the exhibit proved not very different from those of its Middle Eastern neighbors. Rugs and carpets, textiles, leather goods and metalwork predominated and were all on sale at reasonable prices. Not to be outdone by Egypt's cotton samples, the Ottomans produced a sizeable sampling of Macedonian tobacco. In an effort to stress the multinational character of the Empire and remind the West that the Muslim government ruled its minorities with tolerance, the exhibit included religious articles from Christian Arab shrines in Palestine.
Every item on display in Philadelphia fell into one of 36 categories, each of which was evaluated by a team of judges. Those of noteworthy quality received a diploma and bronze medal. A total of 13,104 awards were made, with the Ottoman Empire winning 86, Egypt 34 and Tunisia 9. Each country also won a commendation from the authorities for its exhibit as a whole.
Most of the awards came in the crafts which dominated the Middle Eastern displays, but the wide range of commodities in which Ottoman, Egyptian and Tunisian competitors excelled reveals the depth of the three displays. Egyptian sugar, and olive oil from throughout the Ottoman Mediterranean gained the judges' praise. Both the Ottoman Government and the National Museum in Cairo exhibited specimens of indigenous fruits, plants, seeds and woods which garnered accolades, as did Syrian gallnuts, pistachios and gum arabic. Cotton and linen cloth from Yemen and silks and wools from Egypt and Greater Syria captured prizes, and several Ottoman provinces combined to present a display of silk cocoons "of exceptional merit." Carpet merchants and manufacturers, including some European-owned firms, were commended for their floor coverings and wall hangings.
Despite praising them for their beauty, critics noted that Tunisian and Egyptian weapons, as well as saddles and trappings, lacked practicality and that the Middle Eastern participants entered few exhibits in the mechanical or technical categories.
In the plastic and graphic arts category, however, some early examples of Middle Eastern photography did win some attention. A group of photographs of Egyptian landscapes and ancient monuments and another of Syrian costumes supplied by two Beirut merchants were particularly interesting. Another photographer submitted a series of plates which illustrated the development of the main trends of Ottoman architecture.
The photographs gave a visual framework for the often unfamiliar objects in the Middle Eastern exhibits, but several popular shops scattered around the fairgrounds offered visitors a personal taste of Turkish and Arab life. Prominent among these were Turkish and Tunisian cafés, which sold Middle Eastern refreshments and souvenirs, "bazaars" featuring handicrafts from Syria and Palestine, an Algerian pavilion and a Moroccan villa. Here visitors met Tunisians, Egyptians and "Turks"—who were almost invariably Balkan or Syrian nationals because of their greater familiarity with Western languages—and could observe some of the customs of the East in an environment which could be duplicated only by actual travel.
The Tunisian café served Arab coffee for 25 cents a cup and sold jewelry and trinkets, but its main attraction was the entertainment it provided: three musicians and a dancing girl. Almost as popular was the café's Turkish competitor, which critics hailed as a "very fair reproduction of a café in Smyrna or Pera." Operated by two European businessmen from Istanbul named Ludovic and Vallauri, the café—built and furnished at a cost of $5,000—boasted authentic waiters brought from Turkey and a veranda furnished with divans and small circular tables. The coffee house was primarily for men—another measure of its authenticity—but an adjoining waiting room accommodated their female companions. In two corners of the octagonal interior stood an array of chibouks and water pipes, with both tobacco and coffee available for 15 cents. The adjacent bazaar sold clothing, swords, carpets and, of course, the two types of pipes, which were popular souvenirs for smokers who had visited the café.
The Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Palestine bazaars, staffed by Syrian Christians, were devoted almost exclusively to the sale of Christian religious articles from the Holy Land. Their most popular wares were polished olive wood crucifixes from Bethlehem and rosary beads and other mementoes manufactured of mother-of-pearl.
Of all the Middle Eastern buildings on the grounds, only the privately-sponsored so-called Moorish kiosk surpassed the Turkish café in authenticity. The structure had been shipped to Philadelphia piece by piece from the "realm of the Saracen" by Dr. Max Schmidt, a scientist working in Morocco. Its main feature was a display of Moroccan arts and crafts managed by a native of Tangiers. Jewelry and weapons were on sale and two rooms, a bedroom and a small parlor, both decorated in North African style, were open to visitors. The less ornate Algerian pavilion was similar.
When the Exhibition formally ended on November 10, the foreign commissions began the task of removing unsold items. Much of the material on display in Philadelphia never returned to the Middle East. Several American museums purchased some Egyptian and Tunisian antiquities and, as expected, private individuals bought many pieces. Exhibitors sometimes exchanged goods, with Tunisia and Mexico exchanging seedlings and the Georgia Department of Agriculture asking Heap for samples of Tunisian field and garden seeds which might be utilized in that state. The Bey of Tunis' display of minerals impressed a United States Naval Academy instructor, who inquired about obtaining part of it for the academy's museum, but that particular exhibit was sent back to Tunisia.
Things which the Tunisians did not want, but which had been neither sold nor given away, were disposed of in a New York City auction marked by "general and spirited" bidding on December 2. Among those in attendance were Lewis Tiffany and other members of New York high society. Carpets, draperies and table coverings brought prices ranging from $6 to $65, while a host of weapons, including an antique Turkish sabre and a Persian spear, sold cheaply, as did numerous copper and silver vessels. Overall, however, Tunisian officials viewed the auction, which produced a total of $4,525.07, as "very satisfactory."
Many visitors came away from the Middle Eastern displays with their provincial view of these countries as strange lands inhabited by strange people unchanged. As one Ohio tourist said, he hurried through the Tunisian display because "there is not much to be learned here"—an American attitude toward the Middle East which was to persist, in some cases, right up to the time of the Bicentennial.
But in the final analysis, the Centennial Exhibition was a success for the Middle Eastern countries involved. While they did not secure any official United States Government support or sympathy in their disputes with the Europeans or even completely convince the American public that they were not "backward," they at least succeeded in alerting a great many ordinary American citizens who were otherwise oblivious to it, of their existence. And above all, the Ottoman, Tunisian and Egyptian presence in Philadelphia in the summer of 1876 served as an important reminder to a United States beginning its second century—and soon to involve itself more actively in world affairs—that there is a great deal more to the world than Europe and North America.
Kenneth J. Perkins is an assistant professor of history at the University of South Carolina.